The recipe is simple. Blend melodic guitar-based songwriting with a healthy dose of creative literary prose, add a shifting collective of talented musicians with odd instrumental choices, and package it all with a band name that is an esoteric reference to a Communist uprising. Portland, Oregon’s Decemberists, led by singer/songwriter and guitarist Colin Meloy, weave a tapestry of historical fiction and quirky lyricism last practiced by XTC’s Andy Partridge. The melodies and arrangements recall R.E.M. and the Smiths. Although Meloy favors an amorphous lineup, his core line-up includes pianist and backing vocalist Jenny Conlee and electric and steel guitarist Chris Funk. While there are elements in Meloy’s songs that illustrate his knowledge of recent rock history, his compositions are wholly original. At their best, the Decemberists embody the profundity of a great novel merged with a musical confection.
Some of the 5 Songs (six, actually) on the debut EP fall short of their goal, but two shining moments demonstrate Meloy’s potential. “My Mother Was a Chinese Trapeze Artist” offers a first glance at the Decemberists’ peculiar brand of narrative histori-fiction by combining Meloy’s reedy voice with the title character’s intricate tale; the band provides a shuffling beat, with accordion and steel guitar. “Apology Song,” which was written for a friend whose bicycle was stolen on his watch, puts Meloy’s vocals up front while a mélange of accordion, acoustic guitar, percussion, keyboards and bass swing in the background.
Castaways and Cutouts offers a more varied mix of ancient tales, adding pirates and prostitutes to the fold. Arrangements likewise leap forward in the utilization of loud-quiet dynamics (“Odalisque”), jaunty cabaret pop (“The Legionnaire’s Lament”) and languid balladry (“Here, I Dreamt I Was an Architect”). But Castaways and Cutouts is far from perfect. “A Cautionary Song” is too kitschy, and sameness pervades lesser tracks like “Cocoon” and “Clementine.” But the macabre, jubilant “July, July” and the mid-tempo three-part anthem “California One/The Youth and Beauty Brigade” achieve great heights.
Her Majesty the Decemberists focuses on similar narrative themes to Castaways and Cutouts. Instead of being a retread, this record has an even finer collection of songs, thanks to a new tightness in the band and further refinement of Meloy’s songwriting. Fewer songs meander aimlessly; the focus stays on four-minute pop masterpieces. “Billy Liar,” “The Soldiering Life” and “Los Angeles, I’m Yours” are evidence of the Decemberists’ continued growth. The literary flair is still in residence: the fist-pumping “Song for Myla Goldberg” is an ode to the author of Bee Season, and the Dickensian “Chimbley Sweep” connects to the tale of “Leslie Anne Levine” that opened Castaways and Cutouts. The seven-minute finale, “I Was Meant for the Stage,” is a startling shift to the personal, stepping away from stories of distant lands and times past, using acoustic guitar and Meloy’s voice to address the highs and lows of his musical career before the band erupts in a cacophony of horns, strings, percussion and other instruments.
The Decemberists released a one-song, five-part Celtic-inspired EP, The Tain, on CD in early 2004, and paired it with 5 Songs in a simultaneous vinyl issue.